New York

Sean Scully

McKee Gallery / Pamela Auchinchloss Gallery

Sean Scully attended art school in England in the early ’60s, shortly after Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland began painting stripes. While his more celebrated precursors have long since moved on, he has remained loyal to the colored band, with modest variations, ever since.

In the late ’60s, Scully started using tightly painted vertical or horizontal stripes, and he subsequently employed painted bands both to weave spatial effects by placing one block of strips on top of another and to reassert the flatness of the picture plane. In the early ’80s, he abandoned the taped edges, and began varying the width of the bands. At the same time, where he previously used color only to denote a stripe, he now layers it to evoke unspecified emotions and meanings.

Scully has been lauded as a torchbearer who has committed himself to the principles of abstraction and the search for purity in an impure age; his use of the stripe has been cited as proof that he is a worthy descendant of the likes of Stella. It has also been argued, however, that in partaking of this lineage, he implicitly accepts the underlying principles of a critical establishment that ascribes to Modernist paradigms.

Unlike Ad Reinhardt or Stella, however, Scully never harbored an ambition to make the “last painting”—to foreclose upon the patriarchal order that sustained the formalist orthodoxy. In fact, he never stepped outside the refuge of a highly codified, overly estheticized view of art—one that is disengaged from every consideration but art itself. At the same time his abstractions lack the internal logic and compositional precision that inform the work of artists like Piet Mondrian; Scully doesn’t make each stripe painting “new,” just different.

Scully’s single-minded pursuit of a narrow formal vocabulary is perhaps informed by a belief that, if he paints stripes long enough, it will be taken as a palpable sign of his commitment to the purity of abstraction. Abstraction’s vaunted purity, however, seems a tad suspect in the post-Reagan-era ’90s. To continue to subscribe to the art-for-art’s-sake ideology not only constitutes a claim to be above the realm of human affairs, and therefore beyond commodification’s reach, but it tames Cézanne’s legacy rather than expanding upon his revolutionary investigations. It is to partake consciously of an exclusionary, noncritical discourse that has been suspect since its inception in America in the late ’40s.

Though Scully has concentrated all of his energies on painting stripes and bands for more than two decades, since the emergence of neo-Expressionism in the early ’80s, his style has gotten looser and more painterly, his colors richer and more varied, and their juxtapositions more imaginative. This could be taken as a sign of his emotional growth as an artist. On the other hand, looking back over his career, one might conclude, as I have, that Scully’s paintings are manifestations of a nostalgic longing for the art that came to prominence when he entered art school.

John Yau